from African Psycho

I
I have decided to kill Germaine on December 29. I have been thinking about this for weeks—whatever one may say about it, killing someone requires both psychological and logistical preparation. I believe I have now reached the necessary state of mind, even if I have yet to choose the means with which I will do the deed. It is now a question of detail. I'd rather give myself a bit of latitude on this practical point, and in so doing add a measure of improvisation to my project.

I am not looking for perfection, no—far from me the thought. As a matter of fact, I do not like to undertake anything without due consideration, and a murder is not going to change the way I go about things . . .

Reading news items in our town's dailies, I find that no gesture is as simple as that of bringing someone's life to an end. All you need is to procure a weapon, whatever it may be, set a trap for the future victim, and finally commit the act. The police and the courts will then get on with their job, trying to figure out the murderer's motives. These keepers of the law will even go so far as to endow a scoundrel with genius when in fact his deed was so absolutely clear that it needed no such speculation. But the poor bastards have to work, don't they? This is what they get paid for, and to some extent it is thanks to people like us that they earn a living. I wonder what they will say about me once I have committed my crime. The worst would be that it goes unnoticed. Of course I am not about to consider this humiliating possibility. I mean, why then spend days in deep reflection, during which my brain got all tangled up trying to choose the right weapon for this upcoming crime—so much so that I nearly found myself on the verge of a nervous breakdown?

Ideally, I would benefit from as much media coverage as my idol, Angoualima, the most famous of our country's assassins, used to get. From time to time, to give thanks for his genius, keep him informed of what I am doing, or even just for the pleasure of talking to him, I make my way to the cemetery of the Dead-Who-Are-Not-Allowed-To-Sleep and kneel in front of his grave. And there, as if by magic, I swear, the Great Master of crime appears before me, as charismatic as in his glory days. We converse in the privacy of this sinister locale, the haunt of crows and other birds of bad omen . . .

*

I refrain from dreaming.

Angoualima had intuition; crime and highway robbery fit him like a glove. Can you imagine someone who was born with one extra finger on each hand? Not the type of additional little fingers you notice on some individuals, which surgery can fix with success. Those were real fingers, as necessary as the other ten, and he could really move them around. He would use them to scratch his body's hard-to-reach places, no doubt, and to satisfy his criminal impulses as well. I myself do not have such additional fingers, I know. I am not going to make a mountain out of it.

In fact our view, which we find comforting, is that the assassin should possess something more than your ordinary human being. On this subject, I will soon explain how disgusted I am, to this day, by the closing arguments delivered by our town's public prosecutors. Taking advantage of the fact that, in contrast to the other, "seated" magistrates, they are perched up in one corner of the room, where the public necessarily notices them, they seem to believe that they are entitled to lecture the accused. This goes to their heads, and they launch into rhetorical flourishes that make them look like the most intelligent people in the court. You really have to see these people, their robes, and the way they swish their ample sleeves around, a move they must surely practice in front of the mirror, anticipating their wives' approving gaze.

During the period when I was still hanging around our town's courts, I found that our prosecutors had a pretty fucking high opinion of themselves. They thought they were celebrities, showing up last in the courtroom with the excuse that they had forgotten a file that was important for the continuation of the case of the day. Then they would assume serious airs and wait until the presiding judge called on them to speak to start performing for us one of their trademark coquettish numbers . . .

*

Nothing about me would be of any interest to those who believe one is born a criminal. Such theories are a lot of nonsense, I say! And what else, now? To think that people spend their lives studying, analyzing all this from way up close! Don't they have something else to do? When criminals, real ones, start teaching their subject themselves, then I will begin to believe such things. Most of the time, though, we're bored to tears by eggheads with no criminal practice of their own, reciting things they have learned in books written by liars like themselves!

Let me make things clear: I do not wish to become bigger than Angoualima or graft little fingers onto my hands. I want to be appreciated in proportion to the result of my criminal gesture. Being unable to match the Great Master's prowess, I would at least like to be considered as his spiritual heir. To achieve this, I know I have some more work to do: Killing Germaine on December 29—that is, two days from now—is only one step toward my coronation . . .

II
I still cannot understand why my last deed, which took place only three months ago, wasn't covered by the national press or the press of the country over there. Only four insignificant lines in The Street Is Dying, a small neighborhood weekly, and the lines devoted to my crime were buried between ads for Monganga soap and No-Confidence shoes. As I have kept the clipping, I can't help laughing when I read it again:

"A nurse at the Adolphe-Cissé hospital was assaulted by a sexual maniac upon her return home from work. A complaint was lodged at the police station of the He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-an-Idiot neighborhood."

I assure you, I spent the whole day after this deed listening to Radio Right Bank in the hope that it would convey the facts in detail to make up for this news item, which had hurt my pride and come as a real snub to me, even though I wasn't named in it—I have always suffered from the fact that my actions keep being credited to some other of the town's shady characters.

But they said nothing! This was the day I understood the meaning of radio silence. I became aware that my gesture was not worthy of a criminal of Angoualima's ilk, he who would leave his mark by sending his victims' private parts to the national press and the press of the country over there by registered mail.

I'm telling you: Angoualima, my idol, was something else. How would it be possible not think about him? I make no secret of the fact that his disappearance upset me a great deal at the time, although it did help the police who had been looking for him for years. It just wasn't possible that the Great Master would die like this, as if he didn't have any personality, and that he would leave me an orphan. Seeing a man who used to put the town to fire and sword now immobile, his body left to the winds blowing in from the sea, in the center of a circle he had drawn himself—who would have believed it? I was abandoned. I no longer had reason to live. I cried. I resented the authorities and the inhabitants of He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-an-Idiot. People here and there expressed relief, but I cried foul. Surely, my idol had been pushed to the limit. By way of consolation, I told myself that this death was an opportunity for me. Having never come into contact with the Great Master when he was alive, I now had the chance to pay him a visit, at his gravesite. His spirit would talk to me . . .

The whole town knows that, before committing suicide, my idol, Angoualima, had sent the national press and the press of the country over there an audio cassette on which he spent a hundred and twenty minutes repeating, "I shit on society," the very words that the neighborhood's most popular band, the Brothers The-Same-People-Always-Get-To-Eat-in-This-Shitty-Country, later used in their hit song.

His end came as a surprise to everybody, it's true. No one could have thought of it. Here was my idol, thumbing his nose one last time. He'd really shat on society, as he said. I now understand what he was doing: Above all, he wanted to avoid entering legend on his knees, like a boxer long at the top of his game who gets humiliated by some unknown challenger just as his career is waning.

In this case, then, the Great Master had known how to leave the ring before having to face one fight too many. That's how I choose to interpret his venerable gesture. I'm not interested in what was discussed later . . .

*

Still, it's weird: Every time one of my deeds ends in fiasco, something—I don't know what exactly—compels me to think about Angoualima, my idol, and to make for his grave in the cemetery of the Dead-Who-Are-Not-Allowed-to-Sleep in the first hours of the day. There I talk to him, listen to him take me to task, call me an imbecile, an idiot, or a pitiful character. I agree, abandon myself to the fascination he exerts over me, and take these insults as a sign of the affection that only he shows me. Now if only I could convince myself that it is not in my interest to compare myself to him or desperately seek his approval as a master of crime, I might be able to start working with a free spirit. To each his own manner and personality. I certainly have tried to pursue this course. It's not as simple as it seems.

Why take Angoualima as a model and not another of our town's bandits? I finally found an explanation. Actually, when I was just a teenager with skeletal legs, drifting through the sticky streets of the He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-an-Idiot neighborhood, playing scarfball with other kids my age, I would already hear people talk about Angoualima and would recognize myself in each of his gestures, which the whole country decried. I felt admiration for him. In a certain way he had preceded me in the type of existence I dreamed of for myself. So as not to despair, I persuaded myself that I resembled him, that his destiny and mine had the same arc, and that little by little I would eventually climb each step until my head, shaped like a rectangular brick, deserved a crown of laurels.

I did resemble him. Not in any physical way, but in that he cultivated a taste for solitude and that he hadn't been recognized by his parents either—they abandoned him at a great crossroads of life where the poor child had no idea what path to take.

Hearing grownups talk about Angoualima's life made me realize that I had not known my own parents. Just like my idol, I had fled most of the families with which the government forcefully placed me. I was called a "picked-up child," like the kids with whom I played scarfball behind the train station of He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-an-Idiot. I remember the red soil, broken glass, and garbage the inhabitants came to dump around the field. We would be in the middle of this refuse, laughing and carefree, shirtless, running like crazy until nightfall after a ball made of scarves.

We were called "picked-up children" because at the time, following an unwanted pregnancy, a great number of mothers would wait until they had delivered to skip out of the maternity ward and leave to the State the task of caring for their progeny.

I have always imagined the woman who brought me into the world running with a loincloth saturated with amniotic fluid. I don't know why I hang on to this morbid image, but if I could kill all the women on Earth, I would begin with my mother—if only someone would show her to me, even now. I would pull out her heart of stone, cook it in my shed's furnace and eat it with sweet potatoes while licking my fingers, the rest of her body rotting away before me . . .

Just like Angoualima, I loathed the thought of living with these host families who, in spite of their philanthropic impulse, viewed a "picked-up child" as they would an animal found in the street—feed him milk until its owners come get it. I would always escape from these fortresses, and God knows many welcomed me. As a matter of fact, it was during this period that I was to execute my first dangerous deed, this one more with the intention of defending myself than anything else, for I had my back against the wall . . .

I can still see myself on that day.

I was living in the center of town, in a family of very cultivated civil servants who boasted they had chosen me after a rigorous selection process involving a hundred or so "picked-up children" because, being the one who always ran away, I obviously needed to be taken care of the most of anyone.

For one year I stayed with these well-mannered people. They would ambush me to test the level of my intelligence. Then they noted with sighs of relief that I hadn't forgotten the concepts I had learned a few days earlier. They wanted to inculcate everything in me, and in no time: How to behave at the table, how to respond to grownups, how to sneeze, burp or yawn, how to keep my urine stream from ringing loudly against the bidet while I peed, how to hold my farts, at what time I was to go to bed, how to read in silence and without running my fingers under the words. They had me wear cumbersome clothes, made out of old wrinkle-free nylon with silk lining, when it was more than forty degrees Celsius in the shade! The best tailor in the area would make my clothes—and what clothes! The buttons, big as coins, went up to my neck. I suffocated and sweated heavily under the sun. To their eyes, I had apparently become presentable. I no longer looked like one of these street kids with holes in their pants who stank like mangy dogs. I was distinguished and clean, a child who was lucky to get an education. Was I happy fundamentally? Was I at ease, dressed in clothes poorly adapted to my boisterous nature as a kid?

All this would have been OK if they hadn't shaved this rectangular head of mine completely, making me prey to the jeers of the other children, who would spend all day shouting, "Baldy, Baldy!" Tears in my eyes, I ran. In my hand I held a rock, determined to throw it at the first of them to show up.

*

My family taught me tolerance. I was to offer the other cheek to the person who had just slapped me because this was how you did things and there was no debating God's will, especially when it was written in black on white in the Holy Book.

I was told that I would become a responsible man, a cultivated man, a fine man, because ignorance plunged human beings further into darkness whereas every concept learned brought them gradually closer to the light. I was then studious, or rather pretended to be. On certain evenings around six, with other kids, I would go to catechism, where a sister made it her business to save us from the error of our ways. Her face bore the scars of her tribe. The sternness lurking behind her gaze kept me from looking her straight in the eye. God inspired fear in me, and the paths that led to Him seemed to me tortuous indeed. I think that it was worse than at school. This sister claimed she was "chasing" away our sins and opening us to the real life, the eternal life, for among God's children there were no distinctions—small, tall, fat, thin, black, white, yellow, red: God couldn't care less, she said. Yet every month we had to endure a drastic exam, first oral, then written. Down to the last detail, the sister with the scarred face would check whether we were absorbing God's Word. What surprised me was that she held a long whip and did not hesitate to smack us when our memory failed us repeatedly . . .

*

The People's School was located a few meters away from my adoptive parents' residence. They would drop me in front of the gate and watch me walk away with a school bag I held with the tip of my fingers. We would line up in front of the classroom and the teacher then called our names to take attendance. With the other kids making fun of my rectangular head, the teacher deemed it preferable for me to sit in the last row. Otherwise, those sitting behind would throw paper balls that landed on my shaved scalp . . .

School? I was elsewhere, even though I basically knew that with application I would be able to distinguish myself from the other students. I pretended I didn't understand anything for the mere pleasure of seeing our teacher linger over me and look at my rectangular head with indulgence. Surely he told himself that it was just an empty shell and that, for all his efforts, he could not make it absorb anything that wasn't there before. Myself, I laughed about it on the way home-I could solve all these multiplications, divisions and fractions from memory, without using my fingers or little sticks made out of reed like the other students did . . .

*

I was meant to leave this good family as well, but this time around, I will always remember, it was in the most unexpected and tragic manner. At least as far as my "adoptive parents" are concerned . . .

I had just turned eleven. Given my unattractive appearance, you could think I was three or four years older, no more. This family had an only son who was three years older than me and frequented not the People's School but a private school where the children of European aid cadres would go. Yet the rogue would spend his time outside with the big kids from the working-class districts and use me as a guinea pig for experiments he took from the street. Once his parents were gone, and when I refused to indulge his spoiled-child whims, he would amuse himself whipping me. At his age, he still wet his bed and raised his voice in front of his parents. Whenever they cited me in example, this only son would sulk all day and refrain from eating and going to school. When his parents refused to buy him a gift he demanded, he threatened to not wash for a week and to defecate in his bed. The father would capitulate and implore him on his knees . . .

So it was that one day he grabbed my shirt collar, pulled me into the bedroom we shared, and told me while waving a stick in the air:

"Take off your pants. We're going to do like daddies and mommies! You're Mommy and I'm Daddy."

I had failed to notice that he had hidden a fake beard under one of the posts in our bunk beds. He put on the beard to look like his father and furrowed his eyebrows to intimidate me.

"Hurry up before my daddy and my mommy come back! You'll see, it's good and we'll do it every day!"

His pants and suspenders hid an erection as big as a horse's. I could not escape: He was standing in front of the door and beating the floor with his stick like bailiffs at court announcing the arrival of a judge and the beginning of a hearing.

I was done for. The bedroom now seemed narrow and dark despite a feeble glimmer from an old bulb above our heads. I had to do something to get out of this situation. I don't know how exactly, but an ingenious idea came to me to swing things back in my favor—I told myself I had to play his game.

"You don't know how to do it!" I said, affecting mockery.

"What? What are you saying? You crazy or what?"

"No, you don't know how to do it, that's not the way it's done."

"I do it with the big kids outside!" he replied angrily. "I'm tired of always being the mommy, today I'll be the daddy, take off your pants, quick!"

Hands in my pocket, I replied calmly:

"Usually when daddies and mommies do this, the daddies must always close their eyes when the mommies take off their clothes. And then you have to turn off the light because it's not good to see when you do that . . ."

"How do you know these things, uh? You do this too?" he asked, surprised and disarmed by what I had just said.

"That's how my daddy and my mommy used to do it, I swear," I said while raising my right hand.

"You're lying, Baldy!"

"No, I'm not lying . . ."

"Yes, you're lying! My daddy and mommy told me that you're a picked-up child, and therefore you didn't see your real daddy and real mommy do that!"

"I did too!"

"When, then?" he asked, defiant, raising his stick higher.

"I was picked up after my daddy and mommy died! I saw them, I swear!"

"And how did you manage to see them do it?"

"I hid under their bed."

The only son fell silent for a moment. I saw doubt seize him.

Resigned and out of arguments, he lowered his stick.

"Fine," he said, "you're right, OK! I'm turning off the light, turning my back and closing my eyes. But I'm counting to five! Take off your pants or I'll whip you very very hard!"

He turned off the light. I could still make out his silhouette in the doorway. As soon as his back was turned, I grabbed the stick he used as a whip by surprise. The other end was pointy. He turned around, felt for the switch in the dark. The light came back on, more intense than before. I only had a few fractions of a second to act.

While thinking of the Zorro comics I stole from the bookstore-on-the-pavement outside the Duo movie theater, I went on the attack, holding the stick like a spear. Bull's-eye. Immediately I heard the bad boy scream, "Baldy! Baldy!," cry for help, and feel for a cloth to wipe the abundant gooey liquid that oozed from the eye I had just pierced.

From African Psycho (Paris: Serpent à Plumes, 2003; New York: Soft Skull, 2007). Copyright Alain Mabanckou. Translation copyright 2005, 2007 by Christine Schwartz Hartley. All rights reserved.